. . . is like dancing about architecture. (Martin Mull)
This quote has been rattling around in my mind quite frequently as of late. You see, amidst all the activity that is composition, and all the activity that surrounds that work (classroom visits, site maintenance, recording and mixing, etc., etc., etc.,) comes the search for the next project.
As a new composer fresh out of grad school, I had the chance to ask a fellow composer for his insight into this full-time, freelancing career. He gave me some valuable advice, including the hard truth that I couldn’t depend on any sort of linear progress in my career. As nice as it would be for one opportunity to lead to the next, and the next, and then the next, that isn’t how it works. You have to cast a web, the wider the better, and explore every little tug that you feel. Some things will pan out, others won’t, but it’s pretty much a given that there will be very few direct lines between events.
So when I’m not busily composing away, I’m usually looking for the next chance to compose. Lately, there seems to have been a spate of potential commissions popping up. And what they all have in common is something I’ve come to dread: The Proposal.
On the one hand, I get it. These organizations will likely be getting quite an influx of applications for these various commissions, and in order to ensure the awardee best fits their goals is to learn as much about them in as compact a package as possible.
But “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Trying to describe in words what is, at least for me, an emotional and rather intangible process is difficult, almost bordering on impossible. Not to mention the fact that the listener’s visceral response to my music may be quite different than my own intention.
One of my earliest works garnered a huge compliment from a friend, who described one section of the work that moved him to great joy. Yet the section he found joyous was one that was quite dark in my view. Although my intention in the composition process was different, I realized that he wasn’t wrong in his interpretation. Because he experienced the work through his senses, colored by his life experiences, it led him down a different path than I had taken.
This was a real learning experience for me, and I realized that once I set my music loose, I could no longer control how it was presented and perceived. As a result, I have learned to keep my program notes quite spare and sparse, giving only a loose framework so listeners are free to hear the music on their own terms. When I find myself reading program notes that are very complex and technical, incredibly detailed in what the composer expects the listener to hear and feel, I often become frustrated. Ultimately, if I don’t “hear” the work exactly as the composer describes, I find myself struggling to simply accept what I am hearing without critiquing the composer’s intention.
This is even more difficult when the composer seems to have generated their program notes with the help of this. (Go to enough new music concerts, and you’ll see these are not so far-fetched.) I am simultaneously amazed and disheartened when I read a program note that reads almost like a page from my brother’s doctoral thesis on aeronautical engineering.
The manner in which composers present themselves and represent their works is what a potential commissioner has available to make their judgment. While it would be nice to think they will go to every single composer’s site and listen to most of their catalog of music, it’s not practically feasible, especially when the applicant pool is very large. But while you are reading through your proposals, sifting through the descriptions that range from mind-numbingly technical to vague, generic “oooh, pick me” pleas, I encourage you to keep in mind a couple of things. First, I express myself and my soul in music because that’s a better, truer view of me than anything I could say in words. And second, the ability to construct or deconstruct a work of art in a scientific manner doesn’t make it inherently better, or more solid, or more groundbreaking. It’s whether it touches your soul that matters.
Because “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”